It’s been a year to the day since Pfizer announced it had developed a COVID-19 vaccine with BioNTech that demonstrated 90% efficacy against the virus in a Phase 3 clinical trial, and causing shares of airlines, cinema chains and cruise companies to surge on the hopes that the end of the pandemic was near. But we’re still not out of the woods yet.
President Joe Biden warned just last week that “too many people remain unvaccinated for us to get out of this pandemic.” Some 194 million Americans are fully vaccinated, equal to 58% of the overall population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker — which is well below the 70% needed to stop the spread. The president and government health officials have been calling the resurgence in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” which has certainly been exacerbated by the highly contagious delta variant.
But a recent data analysis also suggests that this has become a pandemic of conservatives — which has been getting worse.
The gap in the COVID-19 death toll between red and blue America grew faster over the past month than at any previous point in the pandemic, according to a new report featured in the New York Times morning newsletter on Monday. It noted that 25 out of every 100,000 residents in counties that heavily voted for President Donald Trump last November died from COVID in October, which was more than three times higher than the rate in heavily Joe Biden counties (7.8 per 100,000). And October was the fifth straight month when the gap between COVID deaths in Trump and Biden counties widened.
And even among red counties, those with more Trump voters had more dire outcomes. The counties where Trump won at least 70% of the vote have an even higher average COVID death toll than counties where Trump won at least 60%.
Back in September, health care analyst Charles Gaba also told the New York Times that counties where Trump received at least 70% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election, COVID-19 had killed about 47 out of every 100,000 people since the end of June. But in counties where Trump won less than 32% of the vote, the number was a fraction of that — about 10 out of 100,000.
And as the COVID vaccines from BioNTech
and Johnson & Johnson
have been effective at preventing severe illness and death, the most severe and fatal cases of COVID have been occurring in the unvaccinated. The CDC reports that as the delta variant surged in early summer, those who were unvaccinated were more than 10 times more likely than the fully vaccinated people to be hospitalized, and 11 times more likely to die.
Related: Unvaccinated Americans hospitalized with COVID-19 cost the U.S. health care system $2.3 billion in June and July: report
So it stands to reason that as the unvaccinated are increasingly concentrated in red America, then the more severe and fatal cases of COVID are being counted in these communities, as well, the Times analysis says.
Indeed, the most recent Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 vaccine monitor found that 90% of Democrats said they have gotten at least one dose of a COVID vaccine compared to 69% of independents and 61% of Republicans. And a recent Pew Research Center poll looking at the political divide in vaccination rates also found that 86% of Democratic voters had received at least one shot, compared with 60% of Republican voters.
And when beloved “Sesame Street” character Big Bird recently tweeted that he had received a COVID vaccine, it ruffled the feathers of many conservatives. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz called the PSA “government propaganda,” and conservative Arizona state senator Wendy Rogers called Big Bird a “communist” in response.
Times writer David Leonhardt noted in Monday’s report that some vaccine skeptics might argue that regional differences in weather patterns or the median age of residents might account for the gaps in death rates from the novel coronavirus, rather than vaccination rates. But if that were the case, then this gap in COVID deaths would have been seen earlier in the pandemic too, he said. Yet the per capita COVID death rate in red and blue America was pretty similar last year; perhaps just a few percentage points higher in counties where Trump won 60% of the vote.
“The true explanation is straightforward,” he writes. “The vaccines are remarkably effective at preventing severe COVID, and almost 40% of Republican adults remain unvaccinated, compared with about 10% of Democratic adults.”
The U.S. is still averaging about 1,200 deaths a day, according to a New York Times tracker. And while cases are declining, they are still averaging more than 70,000 a day across the country — and almost 50,000 people are being hospitalized every day.
Read more: Pfizer and BioNTech to seek backing for COVID-19 booster in all U.S. adults aged 18 and over, as deaths still average 1,200 a day
President Biden is pushing a nationwide vaccine mandate that calls for about 4 million federal workers to be vaccinated by Nov. 22. And another mandate taking effect in January would require around 84 million private sector workers to get one of the vaccines. In response, more than two dozen Republican state attorneys general, businesses, religious groups and conservative associations have sued the White House.
This article was originally published on Sept. 27, 2021, and has been updated with new data and the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates.